Emma Paterson, a student at ASU, reached out to our club about writing a journalism story on the sailing subculture in Arizona. She grew up sailing in Newport, Rhode Island, a town rich in sailing history, and was curious about how AZ sailors overcome being in a landlocked state. Here is what she discovered.
Exploring the Thrills of Sailing in the Desert
By Emma Paterson
Through a state full of rolling mountains and deserts, over 200 miles from the closest ocean, there’s a surprisingly small culture in the desert. The sailing culture – a quiet but mighty community. Although there is no ocean, residents here make the best of it by traveling to their closest lake. Many residents band together with others to cultivate a larger community of sailing. Arizona boasts three large yacht clubs that focus on sailing, cultivating and encouraging individuals of all ages to get out on the water.
Since 1958, the Arizona Yacht Club (AYC) has been a helping hand in the desert sailing community. Ruth Beals started the yacht club from her boat dealership business near Tempe Town Lake. She simply wrote down people’s names who were interested after speaking to a few clients about the idea, unsure of where this club would go. After a few years, 100 people joined Beals’ club. Now, over 60 years later, the Arizona Yacht Club has almost 300 members, with monthly meetings and races year round.
Mike Ferring, who has been AYC’s commodore for a handful of years, embraces the state being landlocked. “I don’t see any problem with being in a landlocked state,” Ferring says. “We have water; we have boats… what else do you need?” This seems to be the mantra all Arizona-based sailors live by.
Sadie Hoberman is a 20-year-old ASU student from New Jersey. She has been sailing in her home state since she was 10 and is now the president of the sailing club at ASU. “In relation to back home, the venue is super different,” Hoberman says. “We sail on Tempe Town Lake so an issue we have is that the buildings around us block the wind. Our practice conditions are always different.” Corporate glass buildings have slowly crept up around the lake in the past few years, standing as tall boundaries from the desert’s dry wind.
According to Kurz Wind Division, four of Arizona’s cities are the least windy in all of the United States. And with the wind being the breath of life that literally puts their boats into motion, Hoberman revealed that their conditions are a struggle for the team. “This year has been a lot better. But there have been times where we will have a month of zero to no wind, just drifting.”
The ASU Sail Team has 27 members and around 20 actively participate since graduate students aren’t allowed to sail in college races. “Compared to West Coast schools, an issue we have is that people don’t know Arizona has a sailing team. So other schools get a lot of sailors coming to the school to sail, whereas, at ASU, we don’t get that.” The team has semester dues of $100 dollars, which is surprising for such an expensive sport. “We try to make it cheap because we have people on the team who have never experienced sailing before,” Hoberman says. “If you make it too expensive, people won’t join the team. We want to expose more people to sailing. The way you do that is by not making our prices super high.”
Along with wind and recruitment struggles, they have to compete with other club teams at ASU for funding. Hoberman takes this opportunity as a way for the team to bond outside of boats, as attendance to ASU events gives points to their club towards funding. She does have her frustrations though. “It’s hard being in a sport that requires so much more money than others,” Hoberman says. “The soccer club team may need a few new soccer balls every few weeks, but we need constant storage for our boats and gear.” Depending on how they store them, fees for one boat can range from $300 to $800 in Tempe.
The ASU club team’s favorite thing to do is to go to ASU football games together. Not only is it getting them closer to getting funding, but they also get to spend quality time with each other. “We come from all over the country, so it’s a great way to meet new people.” Hoberman says. The club just recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, beginning in 2003, and now works very closely with the Arizona Yacht Club.
The AYC recently hosted its annual Birthday Regatta over Presidents Day weekend at Lake Pleasant. The ASU sail team attended, and it was the only other place in Arizona, other than Tempe, that the team has sailed at.
“It was super fun because we got to sail on some boats bigger than the F-J’s we usually sail on.” Hoberman says.
The only additional fee with the club is their $50 travel fee for when they go to western schools for races. ASU has yet to host their own race on its home turf. “We have been planning to host a regatta here next year, but for now we only go west,” Hoberman says. “No schools have ever come to ASU.”
The sail captain compares their small team to a family – being crammed into a small boat can do that. The whispers of wind and the lapping of waves against the hull help create a unique bond. “We’ve all become very close,” Hoberman said. “From traveling to different states to sleeping on floors and hotels together, we have our own little sailing family here.”
The AYC also cultivates this relationship between sailors, with monthly meetings open to anyone, even nonmembers, to see what they’re all about. On their website, they often add an invite to every event – to come by and say hi, even if you’re not a member.
AYC’s flag, or “burgee” in the sailing world, is a simple white flag with a green cactus. Burgees are the sailing community’s travel currency. When members travel, the yacht club encourages them to bring a burgee with them to exchange with a yacht club they visit. It’s like their own smoke signal in the middle of the desert to say, “We’re here!” Seeing that green cactus in a yacht club or on a boat would make the average sailor do a double take, and they’ve slowly been spread across the nation and beyond.
Bill Cunningham, an AYC member, traveled to Black-Rock Harbor, Connecticut, and exchanged burgees with the commodore there. His exchange, along with those of many other members, helps bring the club’s sign of existence to places around the world.
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